Green snow is the least of Pervouralsk’s toxic troubles

From ToxicLeaks

History of Pervouralsk, Russia[edit | edit source]

There’s more to Pervouralsk than green snow. It is a city of about 125,000 people built along the Chusovaya River in the Sverdlovsk Oblast of the Ural region, where its industrial history dates to the first ironworks built there in 1732. A Novotrubny Works plant has manufactured steel pipes and related products since the 1920s, while the MidUral Group operates a plant (formerly owned by Chrompik) that produced chromium products for decades during the Soviet era. That facility, called Russian Chrome Chemicals 1915, still produces chromium used in metal alloys, paints, tanning and other industries.

MidUral Group and the city’s ‘normal’ green snow[edit | edit source]

In February 2019, Pervouralsk made global headlines because the snow in the city turned a bright algae-like green, and not for the first time. Green icicles hung from its buildings. Green slush filled its streets. Angry residents said they were forced to wear masks because of fear of toxins, while children attending school at a site near the toxic snow complained of illness. The same thing happened in 2017 following an accident at the chromium plant, and in 2016 when another green-hued leak contaminated groundwater.

The MidUral Group said there was no environmental or health threat from the leak, and the green color was “normal.” Company spokesman Vsevolod Oreshkin said the color was caused by trivalent chromium dust released by the facility. There was no emergency, and no threat to the health of adults or children.

At the same time, the spokesman seemed to concede that the whole city was toxic and exasperated that its residents and journalists fail to grasp that. “This is Pervouralsk,” Oreshkin said. “It has a whole range of industrial enterprises. If we take samples of snow anywhere, we will see a lot of harmful substances.”

Indeed, the company itself boasts that the concentration of hexavalent chromium – a more toxic form – exceeded the permitted maximum for 100 years, an entire century, before it began its environmental protection plan in 2011. The air emissions also were reduced by 65 times their previous level, MidUral said. Yet the snow is still green, and those claims point to astronomical levels of pollution in the past.  

Silencing environmental activists at Pervouralsk[edit | edit source]

That’s precisely what many Russian environmental activists have feared in the past, though it’s nearly impossible to get transparency from Russian authorities or compliance from its corporate polluters. In 2013, local activist and attorney Vassily Rybakov said there was 7 million tons of unprocessed chromium waste on the site. A Greenpeace activist from St. Petersburg, Rashid Alimov, tested soils at the facility in Pervouralsk and found chromium levels nearly 100 times higher than the accepted maximum levels.

Stepan Chernogubov, their colleague in environmental activism, was beaten and hospitalized after he tried to document the Russian Chrome Chemicals 1915 leakages into the Chusovaya River. It was yet another incident, Greenpeace said, in which Moscow’s environmental aspirations failed to match up with reality, and threats from politicians reminded them of thugs, rackets and “returning to the 1990s.”

Their concerns were well-placed, according to Human Rights Watch. By January 2017, the government under President Vladimir Putin had shut down its seventh high-profile environmental protection NGO. Leaders who investigated environmental violations or wrote reports are arrested on suspicion of being “foreign agents” seeking to interfere with Russia’s economic growth. The OVD Info database lists dozens of detentions of Russian environmental activists since. In the meantime, as the world demonstrated a fleeting interest in the oddity of green snow – a toxic newsfeed novelty of sorts – thousands of people living near the facility in Pervouralsk are poisoned by toxins that are invisible on most days, most years.

Trivalent and hexavalent chromium[edit | edit source]

It’s not just environmental activists concerned about Pervouralsk’s chromium, and scientists have confirmed their worst fears. A team of experts from the Czech Republic was invited to Russian Chrome Chemicals 1915 to work on its hexavalent chromium disaster in 2017 and was shocked by what they found. Lab technicians thought it was impossible for water samples to contain that much chromium; the concentrations are so high that Michail Kosovsky of Palacký University said you could mine chromium. In fact, the levels were so high that one technique for mitigating hexavalent chromium couldn’t be used.

That chemical strategy turns toxic and carcinogenic hexavalent chromium into the trivalent form that Oreshkin, speaking on behalf of the company, assured was not harmful. It’s trivalent chromium that’s causing the green snow, he said. If true, the trivalent form is indeed less toxic than the hexavalent form, but not entirely without risk. Furthermore, a June 2018 study published in Chemosphere warns that where both forms are present, the “benign” trivalent chromium interacts with the hexavalent form to boost its capacity to be carcinogenic in wastewater in the industrial setting. The authors urge that both forms must be removed, which may mean that “safe” chromium makes exposure in Pervouralsk worse. Other studies demonstrate that trivalent chromium may be a threat to crops, wildlife and ecosystems.

In the United States, hexavalent chromium has been scrutinized since the “Erin Brockovich” movie raised awareness in 2000. The European Union banned its use in 2017. Yet no one really knows what’s in the dust that turns the snow green in Pervouralsk, and there’s little transparency on what’s in the soil and water. Meanwhile, aerial map images show bright yellow, green and rust-colored retention ponds on the chromium factory property. The closest is no more than 300 meters from the Chusovaya River.